We are all aware of the ‘Bilingual Advantage’ – that children who grow up speaking two languages have been discovered to display higher levels of mental flexibility and a better grasp of abstract concepts, than monolingual children. Learning and progressing towards fluency in a foreign language is already widely celebrated for boosting brain power, developing cognitive flexibility and preventing the onset of diseases like Alzheimers. This is because switching languages is a stimulating activity which helps to build up higher levels of what researchers refer to as ‘brain’ or ‘cognitive reserve’.
Now a new study by psychologists from the United States has discovered another way which attests to the stimulating power of learning foreign languages. “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases” by Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu, shows that people actually think differently when speaking and working in a foreign language.
According to researchers working in this area, humans have two general systems of thinking. The first is intuitive, quick and emotionally charged. The second is deliberate, slow, analytical and ultimately better at higher reasoning.
It might be assumed that, given the greater cognitive demands of thinking in a non-native, non-instinctive language, users’ attention would be so focused on the demands of the language itself that they would have less mental ‘horsepower’ left over to work with. Not so, according to researchers: in a series of several experiments, it was found that thinking in a second language creates a type of distance from the automatic processes and unthinking, emotional reaction that characterises the first system of thinking as described above. Users made more rational, analytical decisions when working in a foreign language.
One experiment ran thus: scientists recruited 54 American university students who spoke Spanish as a second language. Each received $15 in $1 bills, each of which could be kept or bet on a coin toss. If they lost a toss, they’d lose the dollar, but winning returned the dollar and another $1.50 — a proposition that, over the course of multiple bets, had a high chance of working out as more profitable. The instructions were given in English and Spanish. Researchers found that students took more bets when they were working in their second language – because they were less affected by instinctive, cognitive traps. We as humans have been proven to be naturally risk-averse when it comes to weighing up gain and risk taking, when faced with loss. When working in a foreign language, people are less prone to fall into this instinctive way of thinking and decision-making. They begin to communicate – and think – more deliberately.
The researchers are excited by the long-term implications their study could have on using languages in the working world. For example, what if more financial and economic decisions were considered and made in a foreign language? Would the results be different? Would we have a better outcome?